Revenge is a dark red colour. It is full of adrenaline and risk-taking. It is associated with sex, power, property and love. It is obsessive. It is more consuming than love. Sometimes it requires great patience and planning and sometimes it is opportunistic. Once it is achieved it represents a sense of satisfaction and particularly empowerment. It is sweet to taste. People argue whether the satisfaction is permanent or temporary. Some people renounce it and are idolised. Some argue we should all renounce it and dismiss it from our emotional repertoire as a primitive and retrogressive need that is socially and personally destructive.
“Reaction formation commonly takes pseudo-sublimated, socially high valued forms such as generosity, tenderness,…..and altruism.” ¹
But accountability is one of our highest values and revenge is at least a corollary of the theorem of accountability. Revenge affirms our human interdependence, our desire for a moral framework. It is particularly human because animals don’t seek it. It can be brutal, refined, clever or stupid. It can be secular or religious. At its best it is sublime and then it is called poetic justice. If we are human there is at least one form of revenge that appeals to us.
There was a much abused and humiliated wife who, for years, meekly bore her husband’s awful behaviour. He spent his life trying to frustrate and humiliate her. They were rich but her husband refused to spend money on what she wanted or liked. They had a house with a lift in it and the lift didn’t work properly. Sometimes it jammed between floors and she was terrified that one day she would get trapped in the lift with no one else in the house. Of course her husband wouldn’t get it repaired.
Every year they went on a holiday to Europe for a month. As part of his campaign the husband would leave all the preparation to his wife and delay to the last minute leaving for the airport, exploiting fully her anxiety and trepidation that they would miss the plane and give him an even greater incentive to punish her. This year was no different to any other.
As she waited in the hallway with the taxi outside she heard him move around upstairs. Everything had been arranged, papers and milk cancelled and only the cleaner would enter the house the weekend before they were due back to warm and air the house and get groceries. She was tired of urging him to hurry. Finally she heard the familiar sound of the lift door closing and the lift begin to descend. Then the sound stopped and she immediately knew what happened. The sound of the door closing and hum of the taxi drowned her husband’s voice out. She urged the driver to hurry to the Airport as she looked forward to her new found freedom.²
The status of revenge as a legitimate pursuit is a major part of many religions. One could argue that religious belief intrinsically meet the need for justice and its corollary revenge. Who doesn’t know the Biblical quote “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? So important is revenge that in certain circumstances it is the prerogative of the Lord, “Vengeance is mine”. The most important aspect of revenge in the religious context is that if it is not achieved in this life then it will in the next. If I could remember the beatitudes I would recite them here! At least one aspect of the current Western fascination with karma is the fact that we may be realisation of a thirst for revenge in an earlier life. It justifies current actions. ³
One of the very significant functions of our legal system is to provide a civilised forum for revenge, to tame it, and to take away from the victim the need to exact retribution for an offence or injury. If the perceived distance between the legal system and revenge is stretched too far and people loose confidence in the system they begin to exact their own retribution. Feuding that continues over generations is a feature of societies that do not have recognised legal systems to fulfil the revenge role.
Revenge is not a topic that counsellors and psychotherapists promote or encourage when it is called revenge. Nevertheless it manifests itself today in its many disguises, victim representation, survivor compensation, perpetrator retribution. Psychotherapists and counsellors, generally speaking, would not advocate revenge as a healthy option at the personal level. But many counselling interest groups with an advocacy role for certain groups of victims recommend public humiliation and imprisonment of perpetrators with the corollary of public representation and compensation for victims as part of the thereapeutic process. There is a strong suggestion that a client’s personal transformation will be incomplete without such public affirmation.
The difficulty becomes apparent when the client’s injury is not the result of a currently illegal or morally repugnant act but is nevertheless profoundly upsetting and damaging to the client. In these circumstances we may unwittingly perform a somersault and turn the microscope on the client and investigate why they are so upset. Are the current legal or moral frameworks primarily designed to meet a person’s needs or to socialise the individual into behaviour that meets the requirements of the political and social order? Many who suffered great loss or injury during the past thirty years are now being told that their desire for justice and revenge are an obstacle to the realisation of peace in Northern Ireland and they should suppress their needs for the benefit of society as a whole. How quickly the social and legal requirement is transformed at the expense of the individual. As therapists, do we conform to such vicissitudes or look beyond the current trends? “In the Unconscious, the repressed seems to flourish……like the hidden roots of tree.” (4)
She came for therapy some years after the lift incident. The maid found her husband’s body shortly before she came back from the holiday. She inherited all the wealth and rushed out to find the fulfilment that he had denied her. She found a new husband who was the opposite of her first husband. He was young, loved being with her, and gave her lots of attention. He had one fault he spent too much of her money. This was becoming a serious problem.
1. Schafer, Roy Psychoanalytic Interpretation in Rosarch Testing, Grune & Stratton, New York, 1954, p.347
2. I am indebted to Roald Dahl for this plot. In order to alleviate moral qualms certain
3. Psychics who spiritually assist spouses wishing to separate present them with the useful moral alibi that they were married in a previous life where the spouse was the guilty party. The fact that they wish to separate in this life is merely the working out of karma over past lives.
4. Cameron, Norman, Personality Development and Psychopathology – A Dynamic Approach Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1963 p. 192